Who was James Baldwin?
James Baldwin (1924-1987) was an important American writer and critic who tackled issues of race, sexuality, and social inequality in his novels and essays. Born into a large, poor family in Harlem, he was the grandson of a slave.
Much of his work reflects on the hardship he faced as a young man—and the hardship that many black families faced in the United States in the mid-20th century—and his identity as a black man both at home and abroad. (As an adult, he spent years living abroad, most notably in France, which is also where he died.) His identity as an expatriate is important to understanding his work. As he told The Paris Review in an interview in 1984, the US was an oppressive place for a young black man to live:
It wasn’t so much a matter of choosing France—it was a matter of getting out of America. I didn’t know what was going to happen to me in France but I knew what was going to happen to me in New York. If I had stayed there, I would have gone under, like my friend on the George Washington Bridge.
His best-known works include Native Son (1955), an essay collection that explores issues of race, and Giovanni's Room (1956), a novel that deals with the complexities of identifying as homosexual in mid-century America. Another of his works, an unfinished piece called Remember This House, was adapted into an acclaimed documentary film, I Am Not Your Negro, which was nominated for an Academy Award in 2016.